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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: December 2012

Creamer: GOP’s Fear of Tea Party Primaries Causes Fiscal Crisis

This article by Democratic strategist Robert Creamer, author of Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, is cross-posted from HuffPo:
Often, economic crises are caused by real physical problems – like draught, war, demography, or technological innovation that robs one economy of a competitive advantage over another.
Other times, economic crises result when asset bubbles burst, or financial markets collapse. That was the case of the Great Depression – and more recently the Great Recession.
The economic crisis of the moment – the “fiscal cliff” – does not result from any of these factors. In fact it is not a real “economic crisis” at all, except that it could inflict serious economic hardship on many Americans and could drive the economy back into recession.
The “fiscal cliff” is a politically manufactured crisis. It was original concocted by the Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell as a way to get past the last crisis manufactured by the Republicans – the 2011 standoff over increasing the Federal Debt Ceiling.
Theoretically, “the cliff” – composed of increased taxes and huge, indiscriminant cuts in Federal programs – would be so frightening to policy makers that no one would ever consider allowing the nation to jump.
Now, America is on the brink of diving off the cliff for one and only one reason: many House Republicans are terrified of primary challenges from the Tea Party right.
That’s right, if your tax bill goes up $2,200 a year, or you’re one of the millions who would stop receiving unemployment benefits, the cause of your economic pain is not some a natural disaster, or a major structural flaw in the economy. The cause is Republican fear of being beaten in a primary by people like Sarah Palin, Sharon Angel or Richard Mourdock – funded by far Right Wing oligarchs like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers. It’s that simple.
Most normal Americans will have very little patience with Republicans as they begin to realize that GOP Members of Congress are willing to risk throwing the country back into a recession because they are worried about being beaten in low turn out primaries by people who do a better job than they do appealing to the extreme right fringe of the American electorate – and to the far Right plutocrats that are all too willing to stoke right wing passion and anger.
Nate Silver, of the New York Time’s 538.com, argues in a recent column that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is the increasing polarization of the American electorate. That polarization translates in to fewer truly “swing” Congressional seats and an increasing number where Members are more concerned with primary challenges than they are with losing in a general election. He concludes that at this moment the number of solidly Republican seats is larger the number of solidly Democratic seats.
This, he argues is partially a result of redistricting by Republican legislatures that packed Democrats into a limited number of districts in many states. But he also contends it results from increasing polarization of the electorate in general. And it is due to the fact that solidly Democratic urban areas have very high concentrations of Democrats, where Republican performing areas tend to have relatively lower concentrations of Republicans. These reasons help explain why, even though Democrats got more votes in House races this cycle than Republicans, Republicans still have more seats in the House.
Increased political polarization in the United States is not a result of some accident or act of God. In 2006, political scientists Nolan McCarty, Kevin T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal published a study of political polarization called Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Their study found that there is a direct relationship between economic inequality and polarization in American politics.
They measured political polarization in congressional votes over the last century, and found a direct correlation with the percentage of income received by the top 1% of the electorate. It is no accident that the years following the second World War, a period of low political polarization, was also a period that economist Paul Krugman refers to as the “great compression” — with robust economic growth for most Americans and reducing levels of economic inequality. In other words, it turns out that if you want less political polarization, the best medicine is reducing income inequality.
Of course, one of the other major factors feeding the GOP fear of primaries is that, because of the Citizens United decision, far right plutocrats can now inject virtually unlimited amounts of money into primary races. Unlimited independent expenditures have so far been much more successful in unseating incumbent Republican Members of Congress than it has been winning General Elections.
In the end, of course the relatively more diluted presence of Republicans in Republican districts – and the country’s changing demographics — may allow Democrats to win many currently Republican seats. What’s more, Republican near term concern about primary challenges – and the stridency it breeds — may alienate increasing numbers of moderate Republican leading independents. We’ve already seen this effect in the Presidential and Senate races and it would not be surprising that by 2014 many of the primary obsessed Republican incumbents are hoisted on their own petard in the General Election. Just ask Tea Party Members of Congress who were defeated in 2012, like Alan West and Joe Walsh. But in the near term, at least, there is also no question that many occupants of Republican seats appear far more concerned with primary challenges than they are with general elections.
If House Speaker Boehner is to be successful passing any form of compromise to avoid the “fiscal cliff” – either before the end of the year or after – he will need to convince Republican Members of the House that he is doing them a favor by bringing a bill the floor that can pass even with many Republicans voting no. That, of course requires that the deal is good enough to allow many Democrats to vote yes.

Political Strategy Notes

Michael Tomasky makes the case at The Daily Beast that the Republican Party has morphed into something fairly new in American politics — a political party wholly dedicated to sabotaging legislation. “They didn’t come to Washington to govern. They came to sabotage. So our working assumption must be whatever the issue, sabotage is what they’re going to do.” (See also this TDS post on the topic by Vega, Kilgore and me) Further, adds Tomasky, the only forces that can stop them now are “the high-profile figures of Wall Street and the corporate world,” since they are already among the big losers of the current fiscal crisis and have more to worry about in a few months.
Jared Bernstein believes going over the cliff is better than cutting a bad deal. As Bernstein explains, “it would be better to go over and quickly repair the damage on the other side. How do I know we’d get a better deal there? I don’t, but at that point, I suspect Congress would quickly implement the president’s back-up, bare minimum plan: cut the now-higher taxes on households below $250,000 (which after Dec. 31 scores as a big tax cut, so Rs can enthusiastically get behind it), extend UI, patch the AMT and doc fix, and maybe suspend the sequester. The estate tax will have reset to a much worse deal for those Rs and Ds who want to protect the top few tenths of a percent of wealthy estates ($1 million exemption, 55 percent rate), so they too would be motivated to accept the WH’s deal ($3.5 million exemption, 45 percent top rate, as opposed to what we might get from the Senate deal: $5 million, 35 percent).
HuffPo’s Ryan Grim adds clarity to the coverage of filibuster reform prospects, Grim reports that “Merkley’s “talking filibuster” proposal is wildly popular with the public. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in late November found that 65 percent of Americans believe senators should have to participate in debate for the duration of a filibuster, while only 9 percent said that senators should be able to filibuster without being physically present.” He adds, “The Constitution allows the Senate to write its own rules, which is why Democrats say that only a majority is needed at the beginning of the term to write new rules. Opponents point to Senate Rule V, which states that the rules can only be changed with a two-thirds vote. Democrats point out that Senate Rule V is not part of the Constitution and argue that no previous Senate can tie the hands of a current one.”
Ezra Klein observes that the McCain-Levin proposal “…is filibuster reform for people who don’t want to reform the filibuster.”
About 49K Floridians were discouraged from voting by long lines — and about 30K of them would have voted for President Obama, according to this report.
At FiveThirtyEight, Jon Sides argues that evidence is scant that front-loading attack ads against Romney helped President Obama much.
Mother Jones’ staff has put together “151 Victims of Mass Shootings in 2012: Here Are Their Stories.” Share it far and wide until we get a worthy gun control bill enacted.
David Brooks dissed President Obama on MTP because “sometimes he governs like a visitor from a morally superior civilization,” which recalls Frank Rich likening Mitt Romney to “an otherworldly visitor from an Aqua Velva commercial circa 1985.” Not hard to pick which ‘visitor’ is better for America.
At Daily Kos, John Perr provides the numbers that show quite conclusively “The national debt? Republicans built that.
Krugman explains why Starbucks should just make the overpriced coffee and leave the muddle-headed national debt palaver to the MSM.

Data Shows How the GOP Drives Polarization — and Gridlock

At The Guardian UK, Harry J Enten illuminates “How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship” with some interesting data analysis. Enten begins by commenting on a recent Nate Silver blogpost:

The basic premise of Silver’s article is that House districts have been more polarized of late. That is to say, there are fewer swing districts. In addition, fewer districts are voting for one party for House and another for president…The conclusion one might draw is that many legislators have little reason to play to the middle, and that’s why Washington seems more partisan than it used to be.

Enten then cites presidential election figures from a New York Times article by Adam Liptak, which indicated that “…in 1976, there were near 25 states that came within three points of the nationwide margin and well over 30 that were within five points of the nationwide vote. In 2012, it was eight states within three points of the nationwide margin and 10 within five points.” Enten adds, that in November 2012, however, “there were only 14 states out of 50 where the statewide margin came within 10 points of the nationwide margin!”
In terms of the U.S. Senate, the consequences have been more than substantial:

This increased polarization has translated to the Senate makeup. After the 1992 elections, when Republicans won 43 seats, 49% of the Democratic caucus came from states that voted more Republican than the country as a whole, while about 28% of the Republican caucus came from states where Bill Clinton won by a greater margin than he did nationwide. After the 2012 elections, in which Republicans won a slightly higher 45 seats than 1992, only 25% of the Democratic caucus comes from states where Obama underperformed his national margin, and only 16% of the Republican caucus comes from states Obama won by a greater margin than he did nationally.
…You would think that House Democrats may have become more liberal over the past 20 years, given that they are increasingly safe districts. In 1992, only 51% of the Democratic caucus came from seats that were five points or more Democratic than the nationwide presidential vote. In 2012, 88% of Democrats came from districts won by Obama by five points or more – a 37-point increase.

Using data crunched by Christopher Hare, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal in their Voteview Blog paper, “Polarization is Real (and Asymmetric),” Enten tracks roll call votes to see how these numbers are reflected in partisanship in congress, using the “DW nominate score method,” which puts legislators on a scale from -1 for most liberal to 1 for most conservative. The chart and numbers he presents indicate that,

Interestingly, the scores don’t indicate that House Democrats have really become any more liberal….There has, however, been an increase in partisanship in the house, and it truly is “asymmetrical”. The Republican House caucus has been becoming more conservative every year since 1977, whether or not House Republicans are winning or losing elections. Republicans have climbed from 0.4 on the DW nominate scales after the 1992 elections to near 0.7 in the last congress. That type of charge towards polarization is historically unusual over data that stretches back 130 years.
The fact that it is House Republicans who have become more partisan is somewhat surprising given that the party caucus is representing only slightly more Republican territory than it did 20 years ago. The percentage of Republicans representing seats that went for the Republican presidential candidate by five or more points than nationwide only increased from 74% to 90% – a 16-point increase. That is far less than the 37-point increase that House Democrats, who aren’t much more partisan than used to be, experienced during the same timeframe.

Enten goes on to note a parallel effect with respect to the U.S. Senate — not much change among Democrats, but,

Republicans, on the other hand, have slowly and become more conservative in their roll call votes by moving from about 0.3 to 0.5 on the scale. You might expect this trend given Republicans are representing more Republican leaning states, but the magnitude is quite noticeable given that the average Democratic ideology during the same period didn’t move under polarization.

In addition to roll call votes, Enten explains:

The number of cloture motions since the Democrats took over the Senate in 2007 is 391, an average of 130 per Senate. It would take the last six Senates combined before 2007, that is to say those from 1995 through 2007) to match this total. In the final Senate before the Republicans took over in 1995, there were 80 cloture motions…It’s not just that Republicans aren’t allowing bills to be voted upon in an up-or-down vote, it’s that they are blocking bills in far greater numbers than they did 20 years ago.
When Democrats were in the minority for of the 1995 to 2007 time period, the most cloture motions that were filed in a Senate was 82. Since 2007, the fewest number of clotures in a Senate has been 115. The average number per Senate when Democrats were in the minority was 70 – some 50 less than when Republicans were in the minority the past six years.

The data is just overwhelming. As Enten concludes, “Yes, Democrats block bills, but Republicans block many more. This is gridlock at its finest (or worst)…the feeling that Democrats and Republicans are further apart than they used to be is upon inspection of the evidence more because of Republicans than Democrats.”
The challenge for Democrats is to distill these findings into memorable message points that connect with average voters.

“Fiscal Cliff” Is the Campaign Continued

The two topics dominating the political chattering classes as we approach the end of the year are “final reviews” of the 2012 election cycle and commentary on the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations.
In my own writing at the Washington Monthly, I’ve tried to point out that the two phenomena are largely the same: that the fiscal negotiations represent positions advanced by the various players during the campaign. Nothing’s really changed.
The most important thing to understand is that conservative backbench resistance to a fiscal deal isn’t coming from people who just want John Boehner or Mitch McConnell to drive a tougher bargain, but from representatives of a radicalized conservative movement (a.k.a., the Tea Party) that is seeking permanent restrictions on progressive governance, as reflected in their bottom-line “cut, cap and balance” position. Conservative activists who managed to keep the Republican Party in their grip throughout the 2012 cycle against the GOP’s own electoral interests are not about to give up now, even if they do accept a temporary “fiscal cliff” palliative that delays the big reckoning to a debt limit fight a few weeks later.
And those who think the Tea Folk are just going to go away–or that power struggles like the one gripping FreedomWorks are End Times phenomena for their movement–really haven’t been paying close enough attention. The conservative movement drive to take over the GOP took more than four decades to succeed. Its policy goals are fixed and eternal. So it’s not about to fade into the background and give a free hand to the Republican Establishment “adults” it’s been bossing around for the last four years.

It’s Time to Face a Harsh Reality: The GOP No Longer Behaves Like a Traditional American Political Party. It Has Become an Extremist Party. Moderates and Sensible Conservatives Need to Firmly Reject and Condemn This Deeply Disturbing and Dangerous Trend.

By Ed Kilgore, James Vega and J. P. Green
Although it is only a few days since the 2012 election ended, the national media is already settling into a familiar political narrative regarding the GOP, a narrative that goes as follows: the Republican Party, having suffered major setbacks at the polls, is now “reassessing” its approach and seeking ways to “moderate” its image and positions.
This is a profoundly comfortable and comforting narrative–one that reflects a kind of ceremonial ritual in American politics. A political party, chastened by defeat, is widely praised by mainstream commentators as it moves back toward the center, re-establishing the basic “balance” and “moderation” of American political life.

But in this case there is one overwhelming problem with this narrative: it is profoundly and dangerously wrong.

Read the entire memo.

A Letter to a “Middle of the Road Moderate” Non-Latino Friend About the Moral Difference Between Democrats and Republicans.

By James Vega
Dear __________ ,
I’ve just read your letter in which you criticize my “lack of objectivity” about the upcoming elections and assert your view that “I don’t believe the people who dominate the Republican Party now are really any less moral or empathic toward minorities, the poor and disadvantaged than are the people who dominate the Democratic Party. I find much to disagree with in the orthodoxy of both political parties but I simply do not believe either one is genuinely less moral than the other.
Read the entire memo.

A new study of Drone warfare has sparked criticism of Obama as “cynical” and “immoral.” But the criticisms lack any context. They don’t say a single word about the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, counterinsurgency strategy or the military establishment.

By James Vega
A report two weeks ago on the effect of the Drone strikes in Pakistan has stimulated a range of quite fierce criticisms of Obama — criticisms that have appeared in publications other than the traditionally anti-war and anti-militarist progressive press.
Read the entire memo.

Should Dems Implement the ‘Talking Filibuster’?

Ari Berman, Sam Stein and Steve Kornacki conduct an informative discussion with Sen. Jeff Merkley at MSNBC’s ‘NOW with Alex Wagner.’ Dems don’t yet seem to have the 51 votes needed for filibuster reform, or at least the “talking filibuster” Merkley is proposing in the clip below. Even some liberal Democratic Senators have reservations about changing the current filibuster rule, no doubt because they may wish they had it back, if the Republicans take control again — and Dems have an unusually-large number of seats they now hold up in 2014, compared to Republicans (20 vs 13). Still, as Majority Leader Harry Reid says in the clip below, he has faced 386 filibusters compared to 1 for Lyndon Johnson, when he was Majority Leader. Something needs to be done.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Political Strategy Notes

Jim Hightower’s “Ballot-Measure Democracy a Notable Success in 2012” at Nation of Change, notes overwhelming majorities favoring a repeal or reversal of the Citizens United decision in CO (72 %), MT (76%) and Chicago (73%).
At The Atlantic Anne-Marie Slaughter reports on “The Gender Divide on Gun Control,” explaining, “According to an ABC/Washington Post poll released on December 17th, 59 percent of women but only 47 percent of men support more gun control. Thus when we read that 54 percent of all Americans support greater gun control, that majority is actually a significant majority of 59 percent American women who support it overriding the 50 percent of American men who oppose it.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich makes his case for ‘going over the cliff.’
Regarding “Democratic leaders’ handling of negotiations,” a new Gallup poll finds that “Fifty-four percent approve of Obama’s efforts in talks, up from 48 percent last week,” according to Meghashyam Mali at The Hill.
From CNN’s Political Ticker: “A CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday morning indicates that 46% say they expect Obama will do a better job as president over the next four years than he did the past four years, with 22% saying he’ll do a worse job, and just over three in ten saying he’ll perform about the same as he did in his first term.”
File this one by Jamie Henn of Ecowatch News Report under “cool stuff Mayors can do.”
At The Center for American Progress, Scott Keyes’s “Strengthening Our Democracy by Expanding Voting Rights” reports on “11 pieces of legislation that lawmakers can enact to strengthen voting rights in their state. A number of these policies would make registering to vote more accessible, including online voter registration, Election Day registration, and requiring public schools to help register voters. Others would make it simpler for citizens to cast a ballot, such as expanding early voting, permitting citizens to vote at any polling location, and allowing no-excuse absentee voting. States can also discourage those trying to suppress the vote by outlawing voter caging, strengthening penalties for knowingly deceiving voters, and reforming the voter-challenge process. Finally, legislators can pass other pro-voting policies, such as restoring voting rights to ex-felons and enacting constitutional language affirming an equal right to vote.”
The Growing Electoral Clout of Blacks Is Driven by Turnout, Not Demographics,”
says Paul Taylor at the Pew Research Center.”Blacks voted at a higher rate this year than other minority groups and for the first time in history may also have voted at a higher rate than whites, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, election day exit poll data and vote totals from selected cities and counties…Unlike other minority groups whose increasing electoral muscle has been driven mainly by population growth, blacks’ rising share of the vote in the past four presidential elections has been the result of rising turnout rates…These participation milestones are notable not just in light of the long history of black disenfranchisement, but also in light of recently-enacted state voter identification laws that some critics contended would suppress turnout disproportionately among blacks and other minority groups.”
Alternet’s Adam Lee reports on “There Are Now As Many Nonreligious Americans As Evangelicals — 6 Ways Politicians Can Court Their Vote.”
At The New York Review of Books, Andrew Hacker’s “How he Got It Right” explores Nate Silver’s impressive powers — and methods — of prognostication.

The political centrism of the 1990’s played a major role in the evolution of today’s broad Democratic coalition. The superficial, “Dems are part of the problem” centrism that Third Way has been presenting lately offers a radically different perspective

Back in the 1990’s, the perspective called “political centrism” played an important role in the intellectual and organizational growth of the Democratic Party. While progressives often deeply and passionately disagreed with particular centrist policies and tactics, in retrospect most Democrats will now agree that centrist politicians like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore and others played a significant role in building today’s broad Democratic coalition. Today’s Democratic Party is a coalition of both progressives and centrists that has come of age in the era of Barack Obama, a man who personally embodies a very unique fusion of both centrist and progressive impulses and views.
In fact, most politically serious centrists as well as most progressives would today agree that although Obama has championed major progressive initiatives like national health care, he is more accurately described as closer to a 1990’s Clintonite centrist than to a traditional post-war New Deal Democratic progressive.
There are, to be sure, still very deep disagreements between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic coalition. Right now these are reflected in very substantial arguments over the extent of Obama’s concessions in his negotiations with the GOP. But these disagreements exist within the context of an extremely powerful underlying Democratic consensus – one that was emphatically ratified by the November election. The consensus is that there is a profound and fundamental difference between the views and values of today’s Democratic coalition and the right-wing extremist views and values of today’s conservatives and Republicans. Bill Clinton’s passionate defense of Obama and his agenda at the Democratic convention symbolized the basic unity and agreement that exists on this core issue within all sectors of the Democratic community.
That’s why it is genuinely dispiriting to see the distorted way that “centrism” is now being redefined by the current group “Third Way.”
Consider the recent Op-Ed commentary by two principals of the group that appeared in the weekend Washington Post. The commentary repeatedly implies that most or at times all “Democrats” and “Progressives” hold views that most political observers would more accurately describe as the views of “the left-wing” – or even “the most extreme left wing” — of the progressive coalition. The op-ed commentary does this in order to invent an artificial space for Third Way’s own “centrist” alternative – one that presumes to identify a moderate middle ground between what the commentators clearly imply is an unacceptable degree of partisan extremism on the part of many Democrats and progressives as well as Republicans.
Here’s how the commentary re-frames the views of the present Democratic coalition:

“If Democrats and their progressive allies are to achieve real gains during Obama’s second term, they must understand how we got here, and they must be willing to challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages. If they do not, this historic opportunity could easily be squandered.”

Notice that the “they” who must “challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages” refers without distinction to all Democrats and also to all progressives. Many of the most basic views of most Democrats and progressives are, it seems, so deeply wrong that they must be “challenged” or disaster will result.
The authors then apply this implicit criticism of the excessively extreme views of Democrats and progressives to a range of major issues, in each case identifying a new “centrist” middle ground alternative to the implied Democratic left-wing partisan extremism on the one hand and the right-wing views of the GOP on the other. In order to make this dubious argument, in each case they create either a “straw man” left-wing Democratic position or a non-existent opportunity for political compromise that Democrats have ignored.
Watch how this is done:
Taxes and Spending
The commentary says:

“Democrats can demand tax increases on the wealthy, but only as part of proposals that also include sizable spending cuts. A plan involving tax increases alone would be rejected by moderate voters and clearly is immovable in a divided government.”

1. Has any major faction within the Democratic Party -the Progressive Caucus in Congress, for example or the largest progressive organizations — ever actually demanded that Obama only propose or accept deals that involve absolutely no spending adjustments at all? Has any major faction within the Democratic coalition ever threatened to withdraw support from Obama unless he embraced a plan of pure tax increases and no spending reductions? The answer is obviously no.
2. Is a deal involving a genuinely balanced mixture of tax increases and spending cuts actually “movable” in the current “divided government”? Again the answer is obviously no.

In short, the implicit criticism of the supposedly extremist position of many Democrats and progressives combines both a “straw man” left-wing position that Democrats and the major progressive organizations have not actually insisted upon and a non-existent missed opportunity for compromise.